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How Democrats can win again

The 2016 electoral map (Washington Post)

Veteran Democratic operative Guy Cecil rattled off several tweets Tuesday offering hard advice for his party about how it can recover from the stunning loss of the 2016 campaign and the broader defeats the party has suffered downballot in recent years. I reached out to Cecil to see whether he would expand beyond 140 characters in his diagnosis of what went wrong for his side — and how to fix it. He agreed. Our conversation — conducted via email and lightly edited — is below.

FIX: You started your tweetstorm saying, “We have a political & moral obligation to fight bigotry in all forms AND to speak out for those struggling to make ends meet.” Can that work in real life? Can you meet the needs and beliefs of the creative class and the working class? If so, how?

Cecil: I have found most of the conversation about this to be incredibly discouraging and simplistic.  These are not easy questions, but they are important. Our response to them defines who we will be as a political party, but more important, as a country. So excuse the rather long answer.

I come at this, as we all do, with my own experiences informing my view. My grandmother escaped an abusive husband that put her in the hospital twice, once after stabbing her with a butcher knife and the second after shooting her twice. She was a strong woman. She survived both and moved her five children from Columbus to Miami, where she spent 30 years earning near-poverty wages as a waitress. She was my hero.

I grew up in a family that lived paycheck-to-paycheck. This is, of course, a euphemism for saying we were poor. To make matters worse, when my youngest brother was an infant, he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at the same time my father lost his job. My parents spent years paying off medical bills. We moved to a small trailer on the grounds of a local youth athletic program, and in exchange for free rent, my father would come home from work to line the playing fields, open the concession stand and take care of the grounds. Slowly, my parents worked their way into the middle class. They sent their child to college, the first in the family. They were victims of circumstance but worked hard, loved each other and were committed to their kids. They define the American story.

I am a gay man. I face a different set of challenges than my parents and my grandmother. My parents were never worried about holding hands in public. Their marriage was recognized from the moment they said “I Do.” They couldn’t be fired for loving each other.

I have a niece and nephew whose mother is African American. They face a different set of challenges simply because they look different than their Uncle Guy. I worry for their safety in a way that is simply different than my other nieces and nephews. And I want them to have the same educational and economic opportunities that I have had.

Four generations of American stories. All different. All important. I believe the majority of Americans understand that we can care about my grandmother’s challenges as a single mom in a tipped-wage job, my parent’s economic struggles, my marriage, and making sure my niece and nephew grow up in a fairer, more just world.

We can be a party that stands up — fiercely and strongly — against racism and still support expanding economic opportunities for all Americans.  We can be a party that supports my marriage to my husband, and one who supports the groundbreaking work being done by building trade unions who invest in worker training. We can support the DREAMers worried about their future in America and the dreams of poor whites who have been screwed by big business, big agriculture, and in many ways, their own government.

I am not naive. There are people who will never vote for a party that supports immigration reform or gay marriage or criminal justice reform. So be it. The majority is with us. However, I think we have work to do to rebuild some of the trust lost. Remember, there are millions of white voters who voted for President Obama and Donald Trump. There are millions more in the African American community that didn’t vote. Millions of single women stayed home. They are historically Democratic voters. I am in favor of a full investigation into Russian hacking and I believe [FBI Director James B.] Comey’s letters had an enormous impact on the election. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn't learn from this election and use this opportunity to be a better, stronger movement.

FIX: Who in politics is doing it right — whether a politician or a staffer? Who is setting an example that should be expanded to the party on the national stage?

Cecil: This is where I have been spending a lot of my time in the last couple of weeks. I have had three dozen meetings with a wide range of Democrats — liberals, red-state senators, [Sen. Bernie] Sanders staffers, local organizers, union presidents asking this question. I plan on traveling around the country in January and February to identify and invest in best practices and in local and state leaders who are doing groundbreaking work — not just Democratic groups but all types of activists and organizations.

Let me just name a couple. Rev. Barber in North Carolina established Moral Mondays, and it helped take down the governor there, despite losing the presidential and Senate race. He built a broad-based coalition. He was consistent. He added moral clarity. He didn’t wait for instructions from someone in Washington. He understands issues of identity and economics are intertwined. We need a Moral Monday Movement in state capitols and here in D.C.

In the Senate, I think Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) get this. They do not agree on everything. They have different perspectives on politics, but their message around these issues is rock-solid.

There are emerging leaders like María Teresa Kumar who are doing heroic work building from the ground up with fresh, creative approaches.

FIX: You advocate for a central focus on redistricting in 2020 as key to reversing the party’s fortunes at the local level. Republicans have long funded these sorts of efforts. Democrats haven’t. Why? And how do you change that?

Cecil: I don’t know why more wasn’t done in years past, but I do know our party has become too focused on the presidential race, to the detriment on local and state races. While most of my experience has been in Senate races that benefit from getting attention, I have seen the other committees struggle to get the attention they need.

I am encouraged by what I have seen. A redistricting commission has been established with many of the most talented leaders of our party helping lead the way. President Obama and Eric Holder are also committed to seeing this through.

At the same time, we must also win in 2018. We have competitive governor’s races across the country and many winnable majorities in state legislatures. I am personally committing to do all I can in my home state, Florida, to win up and down the ballot.

FIX: You hit elected officials — most of them — for ignoring their state parties. Why do you think that’s happened? And how, aside from raising more money, do you fix that problem in the near term?

Cecil: First, it takes time. Most elected officials are focused on their own election and doing the jobs they were elected to do. They usually only start paying attention when their election is at stake. Second, it is hard to get donors to prioritize party building over the issues or organizations they want to support. They are being inundated with requests for money from so many people. It becomes overwhelming. Third, state parties rarely have the ability to raise money online.

The solution is not complicated, but that doesn’t make it easy. [Outgoing Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid spent real time and energy building the state party in Nevada. He hired some of the best operatives early in their careers and he empowered a talented leader, Rebecca Lambe, to build it.  Together, Senator Reid and Rebecca paid attention month after month, year after year.

The Democratic National Committee is part of the solution, but they are insufficient to turning around state parties, most of which are in disrepair. When I was political director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006 and again as executive director in 2012 and 2014, we spent record amounts building field organizations. But those efforts were temporary. Most of the organization and data that is built and collected is lost by the time the next Senate election comes around. We can do better.

FIX: Finish this sentence: “The most important lesson Democrats should learn from President-elect Donald Trump is....” Now, explain.

Cecil: I want to give two answers here.

First, I despise the way Donald Trump used fear and anger to divide our country, exposing and creating rifts that will take years to heal. However, he had a simple message. People understood very clearly why he was running. We must do more than present our party as a loose confederation of interest groups and issues. I plan on spending a good deal of my time addressing the lack of a compelling, unifying message among progressives and our party.

Second, I want to be clear about a message we should not learn from Donald Trump. The way to win is not to become a liberal version of Trump, mired in division and hatred. More darkness in our political process will only lead to despair. It is time for activism, passion, protests, righteous anger and moral clarity. It is also time for more light.